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Poet and Philosopher David Whyte’s Gorgeous Letter to Children About Reading, Amazement, and the Exhilaration of Discovering the Undiscovered

A celebration of the delicious enchantment of the very first time.

Poet and Philosopher David Whyte’s Gorgeous Letter to Children About Reading, Amazement, and the Exhilaration of Discovering the Undiscovered

I remember the feeling of first seeing the Moon through the small handheld telescope my father had smuggled from East Germany — how ancient yet proximate it felt, how alive, as though I could glide my six-year-old finger over its rugged radiance — the feeling of electric astonishment at something so surprising yet so inevitable, something that seemed to have always been waiting there just for me to discover it. I remember next having that feeling nearly a decade later, upon first reading To the Lighthouse, my English still too crude to register every note of nuance, but attuned enough to be staggered by the symphonic might of Virginia Woolf’s prose, to be stirred in some still-dim corner of my own mind by the glowing edges of hers.

It is an unrepeatable feeling — better than a first kiss, for it comes without anticipation or hope; more like a great love that rises from some unseen shore like a great blue heron over the misty lake at dawn, unbidden and improbable and discomposing in its majesty. It is a feeling often found between the covers of a great book, in the stillness between expectations, or as the twist at the end of a great poem dopplers past you in the hallway of the mind, leaving you stunned and transformed.

In some strange and wondrous sense, then, that which is still ahead of you, still waiting to be discovered, still holding its secret astonishment, is the most delicious, delirious of rewards.

Umberto Eco hinted at this in his wonderful notion of the “antilibrary” with its insistence that unread books, by virtue of their yet-unimagined and unsavored nourishment, have more value to our inner lives than those we have already metabolized. A generation later, poet and philosopher David Whyte address this in his gorgeous contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — that labor-of-love collection of 121 original illustrated letters to children about why we read and how books transform us by poets and physicists, cellists and entrepreneurs, artists and astronauts — some of the most inspiring humans in our world, whose character has been shaped by a life of reading.

Art by Felicita Sala for a letter by David Whyte from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Whyte writes:

Dear Young Friend,

I wish. I wish, I wish, I wish; I wish I were in your shoes now, I wish I were standing where you are standing now, I would swap everything I have learned through my reading, I would swap my entire library of a thousand books, every journey and adventure I have taken through their pages, all the insights about the world and myself, all the laughter, the tragedy, the moments of shock and relief, all the books that have amazed me and that have made me reread them again and again, to be at the beginning as you are, so that I could read them all again for the very first time.

I wish, I wish, I wish I were in your place with all the books of the world waiting patiently for me. It would be so astonishing to come across Coleridge as a perfect stranger and hear his voice for the first time; I would love to know nothing about Shakespeare or Jane Austen, to be overwhelmed by the fact that there is a Rosalind, or an Elizabeth Bennett, or later, an Emily Dickinson, in this world, and then, and then to see my hand for the first time attempting to write even a little like they have, to follow them in shyness and trepidation and beautiful frustration, to walk through the incredible territory we call writing and reading and see it all again with new eyes. I wish, I wish, I wish; I wish

I were in your shoes, in a beautiful waiting to know, waiting to read, waiting to write, so that I could open the door and walk through all the books I have ever read or written as if I hadn’t. I wish, I wish, I wish; I wish I were in your shoes now.

Yours in anticipation,

David Whyte

Savor other testaments to the power and splendor of reading from A Velocity of Being — letters by Rebecca Solnit, Anne Lamott, Jane Goodall, Alain de Botton, Debbie Millman, Jacqueline Woodson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Alexander Chee, Kevin Kelly, and Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin — then revisit Whyte on anger and forgiveness, friendship, love, and heartbreak, and resisting the tyranny of labeling the heart’s truth.

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The Cosmic Miracle of Trees: Astronaut Leland Melvin Reads Pablo Neruda’s Love Letter to Earth’s Forests

“Anyone who hasn’t been in the Chilean forest doesn’t know this planet. I have come out of that landscape, that mud, that silence, to roam, to go singing through the world.”

The Cosmic Miracle of Trees: Astronaut Leland Melvin Reads Pablo Neruda’s Love Letter to Earth’s Forests

“Today, for some, a universe will vanish,” Jane Hirshfield writes in her stunning poem about the death of a tree a quarter millennium after William Blake observed in his most passionate letter that how we see a tree is how we see the world, and in the act of seeing we reveal what we are: “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way,” he wrote. “As a man is, so he sees.”

If a single tree is home to a miniature universe of life, and if we are learning with wide-eyed wonder that a tree is not a self-contained world but a synaptic node in a complex cosmos of relationships in constant and astonishing communication with other nodes, relationships that weave the fabric of earthly life, what does it make us — what does it reveal about our character, as a planetary people and a civilization — to watch the world’s forests vanish in flames before our eyes, in wildfires so ferocious as to be visible from space?

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1926. (Available as a print.)

A century after Walt Whitman turned to trees as our wisest moral teachers and a generation before Wangari Maathai defended them with her life in a movement of moral courage that won her the Nobel Peace Prize, the Nobel-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (July 12, 1904–September 23, 1973) — one of humanity’s furthest-seeing and lushest-minded artists — shone a gorgeous sidewise gleam at an answer by way of celebration rather than lamentation in a passage from his Memoirs (public library), posthumously published in English the year the Voyager spacecraft captured that poetry-fomenting first glimpse of our Pale Blue Dot seen from far away. (Translated from the Spanish by Hardie St. Martin, this treasure of a book is now — unfathomably, tragically, a civilizational embarrassment — out of print.)

At the 2020 Universe in Verse, celebrating fifty years of Earth Day, astronaut and poetry-lover Leland Melvin — one of a fraction of a fraction of a percentage of humans in the history of our species to have left this rare planet, to have seen its forests and its intricate living web of relationships from the cosmic perspective, and to have returned loving it all the more passionately — breathed new life into Neruda’s forgotten words with a soulful reading of that passage:

Under the volcanoes, beside the snow-capped mountains, among the huge lakes, the fragrant, the silent, the tangled Chilean forest… My feet sink down into the dead leaves, a fragile twig crackles, the giant rauli trees rise in all their bristling height, a bird from the cold jungle passes over, flaps its wings, and stops in the sunless branches. And then, from its hideaway, it sings like an oboe… The wild scent of the laurel, the dark scent of the boldo herb, enter my nostrils and flood my whole being… The cypress of the Guaitecas blocks my way… This is a vertical world: a nation of birds, a plenitude of leaves… I stumble over a rock, dig up the uncovered hollow, an enormous spider covered with red hair stares up at me, motionless, as huge as a crab… A golden carabus beetle blows its mephitic breath at me, as its brilliant rainbow disappears like lightning… Going on, I pass through a forest of ferns much taller than I am: from their cold green eyes sixty tears splash down on my face and, behind me, their fans go on quivering for a long time… A decaying tree trunk: what a treasure!… Black and blue mushrooms have given it ears, red parasite plants have covered it with rubies, other lazy plants have let it borrow their beards, and a snake springs out of the rotted body like a sudden breath, as if the spirit of the dead trunk were slipping away from it… Farther along, each tree stands away from its fellows… They soar up over the carpet of the secretive forest, and the foliage of each has its own style, linear, bristling, ramulose, lanceolate, as if cut by shears moving in infinite ways… A gorge; below, the crystal water slides over granite and jasper… A butterfly goes past, bright as a lemon, dancing between the water and the sunlight… Close by, innumerable calceolarias nod their little yellow heads in greeting… High up, red copihues (Lapageria rosea) dangle like drops from the magic forest’s arteries… A fox cuts through the silence like a flash, sending a shiver through the leaves, but silence is the law of the plant kingdom… The barely audible cry of some bewildered animal far off… The piercing interruption of a hidden bird… The vegetable world keeps up its low rustle until a storm chums up all the music of the earth.

Anyone who hasn’t been in the Chilean forest doesn’t know this planet.

I have come out of that landscape, that mud, that silence, to roam, to go singing through the world.

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1926. (Available as a print.)

Complement with poet and painter Rebecca Hey’s lovely illustrations for the world’s first encyclopedia of trees, Mary Oliver’s radiant poem “When I Am Among the Trees” radiantly read by Amanda Palmer, the uncommonly wonderful picture-book The Forest, and the poetic nature writer Robert Macfarlane — who also read at the 2020 Universe in Verse — on how trees illuminate the secret of true love, then savor other highlights from this poetic celebration of the science and splendor of nature: a sublimely beautiful animation of Marie Howe’s stirring poem about our cosmic belonging and the meaning of home, inspired by Stephen Hawking; astrophysicist Janna Levin reading “Antidotes to Fear of Death” by the late, great astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson; Amanda Palmer reading “Einstein’s Mother” by former U.S. Poet Laureate and Universe in Verse alumna Tracy K. Smith; and artist Ohara Hale’s lyrical watercolor adaptation of Mojave American poet Natalie Diaz’s ode to brokenness as a portal to belonging and resilience.

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Nature and the Serious Work of Joy

“There can be occasions when we suddenly and involuntarily find ourselves loving the natural world with a startling intensity, in a burst of emotion which we may not fully understand…”

Nature and the Serious Work of Joy

“Our origins are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” Rachel Carson wrote in reflecting on our spiritual bond with nature shortly before she awakened the modern environmental conscience.

The rewards and redemptions of that elemental yet endangered response is what British naturalist and environmental writer Michael McCarthy, a modern-day Carson, explores in The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy (public library) — part memoir and part manifesto, a work of philosophy rooted in environmental science and buoyed by a soaring poetic imagination.

McCarthy writes:

The natural world can offer us more than the means to survive, on the one hand, or mortal risks to be avoided, on the other: it can offer us joy.

[…]

There can be occasions when we suddenly and involuntarily find ourselves loving the natural world with a startling intensity, in a burst of emotion which we may not fully understand, and the only word that seems to me to be appropriate for this feeling is joy.

“Roots” by Maria Popova

In a sentiment that calls to mind Theodore Roosevelt’s assertion that “the poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer,” McCarthy weighs the particular necessity and particular precariousness of joy in our cynicism-crippled world:

Referring to it as joy may not facilitate its immediate comprehension either, not least because joy is not a concept, nor indeed a word, that we are entirely comfortable with, in the present age. The idea seems out of step with a time whose characteristic notes are mordant and mocking, and whose preferred emotion is irony. Joy hints at an unrestrained enthusiasm which may be thought uncool… It reeks of the Romantic movement. Yet it is there. Being unfashionable has no effect on its existence… What it denotes is a happiness with an overtone of something more, which we might term an elevated or, indeed, a spiritual quality.

A century and a half after Thoreau extolled nature as a form of prayer and an antidote to the smallening of spirit amid the ego-maelstrom we call society — “In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean,” he lamented in his journal — McCarthy considers the role of the transcendent feelings nature can stir in us in a secular world:

They are surely very old, these feelings. They are lodged deep in our tissues and emerge to surprise us. For we forget our origins; in our towns and cities, staring into our screens, we need constantly reminding that we have been operators of computers for a single generation and workers in neon-lit offices for three or four, but we were farmers for five hundred generations, and before that hunter-gatherers for perhaps fifty thousand or more, living with the natural world as part of it as we evolved, and the legacy cannot be done away with.

Earthrise (December 24, 1968)
Earthrise (December 24, 1968)

In consonance with Carl Sagan’s beautiful humanist meditation on the Pale Blue Dot photograph captured by the Voyager spacecraft, McCarthy turns to the first iconic cosmic view of our planet — Earthrise, captured by Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve 1968. Echoing Sagan’s own insight that Earthrise seeded in us a new kind of dual awareness — “the sense of our planet as one in a vast number and the sense of our planet as a place whose destiny depends upon us” — McCarthy writes:

At this moment, for the first time, we saw ourselves from a distance, and the earth in its surrounding dark emptiness not only seemed impossibly beautiful but also impossibly fragile. Most of all, we could see clearly that it was finite. This does not appear to us on the earth’s surface; the land or the sea stretches to the horizon, but there is always something beyond. However many horizons we cross, there’s always another one waiting. Yet on glimpsing the planet from deep space, we saw not only the true wonder of its shimmering blue beauty, but also the true nature of its limits.

In a passage that calls to mind Ursula K. Le Guin’s insistence that “to use the world well, to be able to stop wasting it and our time in it, we need to relearn our being in it,” McCarthy places the vital relationship between responsibility and joy at the heart of our relearning of being:

It is time for a different, formal defence of nature. We should offer up not just the notion of being sensible and responsible about it, which is sustainable development, nor the notion of its mammoth utilitarian and financial value, which is ecosystem services, but a third way, something different entirely: we should offer up what it means to our spirits; the love of it. We should offer up its joy.

Illustration from Beastly Verse by JooHee Yoon

I have long found the word environment disquieting. Embedded in it is residual Ptolemism that places us at the center of nature and casts the rest of the natural world as something that surrounds us and implicitly revolves around us. The notion of “natural resources” furthers this hubris by framing trees and rivers and meadows as entities and economic assets existing for the satisfaction of our human needs. McCarthy speaks to this civilizational hubris and how it bereaves us of the far greater “resource” which nature can offer us, and has long offered us, not as an exploitable asset but as an unbidden gift:

We can generalise or, indeed, monetise the value of nature’s services in satisfying our corporeal needs, since we all have broadly the same continuous requirement for food and shelter; but we have infinitely different longings for solace and understanding and delight. Their value is modulated, not through economic assessment, but through the personal experiences of individuals. So we cannot say — alas that we cannot — that birdsong, like coral reefs, is worth 375 billion dollars a year in economic terms, but we can say, each of us, that at this moment and at this place it was worth everything to me. Shelley did so with his skylark, and Keats with his nightingale, and Thomas Hardy with the skylark of Shelley, and Edward Thomas with his unknown bird, and Philip Larkin with his song thrush in a chilly spring garden, but we need to remake, remake, remake, not just rely on the poems of the past, we need to do it ourselves — proclaim these worths through our own experiences in the coming century of destruction, and proclaim them loudly, as the reason why nature must not go down.

Illustration by Matthew Forsythe from The Gold Leaf

That most unquantifiable, most precious value of nature to human life, McCarthy insists, is the gift nestled in the responsibility — the gift of joy. He writes:

Joy has a component, if not of morality, then at least of seriousness. It signifies a happiness which is a serious business. And it seems to me the wholly appropriate name for the sudden passionate happiness which the natural world can occasionally trigger in us, which may well be the most serious business of all.

Echoing Denise Levertov’s stirring poem about our ambivalent relationship to nature — “We call it ‘Nature’; only reluctantly admitting ourselves to be ‘Nature’ too.” — McCarthy extends a promissory vision for reclaiming our joyous belonging to the natural world:

The natural world is not separate from us, it is part of us. It is as much a part of us as our capacity for language; we are bonded to it still, however hard it may be to perceive the union in the tumult of modern urban life. Yet the union can be found, the union of ourselves and nature, in the joy which nature can spark and fire in us.

A mighty kindling for that fire is what McCarthy offers in the remainder The Moth Snowstorm — a beautiful and catalytic read in its entirety. Complement it with evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis on the interconnectedness of nature and Loren Eiseley — one of the most elegant thinkers and underappreciated geniuses of the past century — on how nature can help us reclaim our sense of the miraculous in a mechanical age, then savor Krista Tippett’s beautiful On Being conversation with McCarthy:

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Two Hundred Years of Blue

Cerulean splendor from Goethe, Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, Rachel Carson, Toni Morrison, and other literary masters.

With Carl Sagan’s poetic Pale Blue Dot on my mind lately, I have found myself dwelling on the color blue and the way our planet’s elemental hue, the most symphonic of the colors, recurs throughout our literature as something larger than a mere chromatic phenomenon — a symbol, a state of being, a foothold to the most lyrical and transcendent heights of the imagination.

Gathered here is a posy of blue from some of my favorite encounters with this more-than-color in the literature of the past two centuries.

JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE (1810)

In his sixty-first year, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (August 28, 1749–March 22, 1832), by then Europe’s reigning intellect, published Theory of Colors (public library | public domain) — his effort to unearth the psychological link between color and emotion nearly a century before the dawn of psychology as a formal field of study, penned just before his compatriot Abraham Gottlob Werner released his seminal scientific nomenclature of color, which Darwin would later take on The Beagle.

“We love to contemplate blue,” Goethe wrote, “not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it.” The treatise, composed as a refutation of Newton, turned out to have no scientific validity. But its conceptual aspects fascinated and inspired generations of philosophers and scientists ranging from Arthur Schopenhauer to Kurt Gödel.

Color chart by Patrick Syme for Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours: Adapted to Zoology, Botany, Chemistry, Mineralogy, Anatomy, and the Arts.

Goethe writes in the section allotted to blue:

As yellow is always accompanied with light, so it may be said that blue still brings a principle of darkness with it.

This color has a peculiar and almost indescribable effect on the eye. As a hue it is powerful — but it is on the negative side, and in its highest purity is, as it were, a stimulating negation. Its appearance, then, is a kind of contradiction between excitement and repose.

As the upper sky and distant mountains appear blue, so a blue surface seems to retire from us.

But as we readily follow an agreeable object that flies from us, so we love to contemplate blue — not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it.

Blue gives us an impression of cold, and thus, again, reminds us of shade… Rooms which are hung with pure blue, appear in some degree larger, but at the same time empty and cold.

The appearance of objects seen through a blue glass is gloomy and melancholy.

HENRY DAVID THOREAU (1843)

“Where is my cyanometer,” Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) exclaimed in his splendid journal on a blue-skied spring day, referring to the curious device invented by the Swiss scientist Horace-Bénédict de Saussure a century earlier to measure the blueness of the sky, which the polymathic naturalist Alexander von Humboldt enthusiastically embraced. “We love to see any part of the earth tinged with blue, cerulean, the color of the sky, the celestial color,” Thoreau wrote in another spring entry. “The blue of my eye sympathizes with this blue in the snow,” he recorded in a winter one. “Blue is light seen through a veil,” he wrote on the precipice of the two seasons.

Horace-Bénédict de Saussure’s cyanometer, circa 1760. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Thoreau’s writings, dancing at the borderline between observation and contemplation, are strewn with his love of blue. Most often, he records his delight at the raw reality of the color as he encounters it in nature. Occasionally, however, he leaps from the actual into the abstract, drawing from physical blueness insight into the metaphysical dimensions of existence.

In a travelogue from an 1843 walk to Waschusett, found in his indispensable Excursions (free ebook | public library) — the source of his lovely meditation on finding spiritual warmth in winter — Thoreau writes:

We resolved to scale the blue wall which bound the western horizon… In the spaces of thought are the reaches of land and water, where men go and come. The landscape lies far and fair within, and the deepest thinker is the farthest travelled.

Peering into the blue horizon from the conquered mountain summit at the end of the journey, he finds in it a metaphor for the boundlessness of the human spirit:

We will remember within what walls we lie, and understand that this level life too has its summit, and why from the mountain-top the deepest valleys have a tinge of blue; that there is elevation in every hour, as no part of the earth is so low that the heavens may not be seen from, and we have only to stand on the summit of our hour to command an uninterrupted horizon.

WASSILY KANDINSKY (1910)

Exactly a century after Goethe, the great Russian painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky (December 16, 1866–December 13, 1944) examined the psychological and spiritual dimensions of art through the lens of form and color. In Concerning the Spiritual in Art (free ebook | public library), Kandinsky devotes an especially impassioned section to blue:

The power of profound meaning is found in blue, and first in its physical movements (1) of retreat from the spectator, (2) of turning in upon its own centre. The inclination of blue to depth is so strong that its inner appeal is stronger when its shade is deeper. Blue is the typical heavenly colour… The ultimate feeling it creates is one of rest… [Footnote:] Supernatural rest, not the earthly contentment of green. The way to the supernatural lies through the natural.

When it sinks almost to black, it echoes a grief that is hardly human… When it rises towards white, a movement little suited to it, its appeal to men grows weaker and more distant. In music a light blue is like a flute, a darker blue a cello; a still darker a thunderous double bass; and the darkest blue of all — an organ.

GEORGIA O’KEEFFE (1916)

When Georgia O’Keeffe (November 15, 1887–March 6, 1986) was a little girl, decades before she came to be regarded as America’s first great female artist and became the first woman honored with a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, her mother used to read history and travel stories to her every night before bed. The mesmerism of place never lost its grip on her. At the peak of her career, O’Keeffe left New York and moved to the exotic expanse of the Southwest to live a solitary life. She once wrote in a letter to her dearest friend, Anita Pollitzer, who had selflessly taken it upon herself to make the New York art elite pay attention to O’Keeffe’s work: “I believe one can have as many rare experiences at the tail end of the earth as in civilization if one grabs at them — no — it isn’t a case of grabbing — it is — just that they are here — you can’t help getting them.” Pollitzer would later come to write in a major profile of O’Keeffe: “Fame still does not seem to be as meaningful or real to her as the mesas of New Mexico or the petals of a white rose.”

Or the blue of the Southwest sky, for what most enchanted O’Keeffe in her new home was the vast firmament with its tempest of color, richer than anything she had ever seen or even imagined possible. In a letter from September of 1916, found in Lovingly, Georgia: The Complete Correspondence of Georgia O’Keeffe and Anita Pollitzer (public library), O’Keeffe exults in the azure awe of the Southwest sky:

Tonight I walked into the sunset — to mail some letters — the whole sky — and there is so much of it out here — was just blazing — and grey blue clouds were riding all through the holiness of it — and the ugly little buildings and windmills looked great against it…

The Eastern sky was all grey blue — bunches of clouds — different kinds of clouds — sticking around everywhere and the whole thing — lit up — first in one place — then in another with flashes of lightning — sometimes just sheet lightning — and some times sheet lightning with a sharp bright zigzag flashing across it –. I walked out past the last house — past the last locust tree — and sat on the fence for a long time — looking — just looking at — the lightning — you see there was nothing but sky and flat prairie land — land that seems more like the ocean than anything else I know — There was a wonderful moon.

Well I just sat there and had a great time all by myself — Not even many night noises — just the wind —

[…]

It is absurd the way I love this country… I am loving the plains more than ever it seems — and the SKY — Anita you have never seen SKY — it is wonderful —

Georgia O’Keeffe. Light Coming on the Plains, I, II and III, 1917, watercolor on paper. (Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.)

Two decades later, O’Keeffe revisited blue in her contribution to An American Place — the catalogue for an exhibition of Ansel Adams’s photographs her great love and spouse, Alfred Stieglitz, had put on in New York City. (Thanks, Natalie, for the discovery.) O’Keeffe writes:

When I started painting the pelvis bones I was most interested in the holes in the bones — what I saw through them — particularly the blue from holding them up in the sun against the sky as one is apt to do when one seems to have more sky than earth in one’s world… they were most beautiful against the Blue — that Blue that will always be there as it is now after all man’s destruction is finished.

MARGARET MEAD (1926)

For Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901–November 15, 1978), the color blue appeared not in the attentive observation of the real world that made her one of the most visionary and influential anthropologists in history, but in a nocturnal visitation of her own unconscious mind — a strange and wondrous dream about the meaning of life.

In a 1926 letter found in To Cherish the Life of the World: Selected Letters of Margaret Mead (public library) — which gave us Mead’s exquisite love letters to her lifelong soulmate and her advice on how to raise a child in an uncertain world — Mead recounts her nocturnal revelation:

Last night I had the strangest dream. I was in a laboratory with Dr. Boas and he was talking to me and a group of other people about religion, insisting that life must have a meaning, that man couldn’t live without that. Then he made a mass of jelly-like stuff of the most beautiful blue I had ever seen — and he seemed to be asking us all what to do with it. I remember thinking it was very beautiful but wondering helplessly what it was for. People came and went making absurd suggestions. Somehow Dr. Boas tried to carry them out — but always the people went away angry, or disappointed — and finally after we’d been up all night they had all disappeared and there were just the two of us. He looked at me and said, appealingly “Touch it.” I took some of the astonishingly blue beauty in my hand, and felt with a great thrill that it was living matter. I said “Why it’s life — and that’s enough” — and he looked so pleased that I had found the answer — and said yes “It’s life and that is wonder enough.”

VIRGINIA WOOLF (1937)

There is a strange paucity of blue in the private writings of literature’s bluest soul. Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) rarely mentions the color throughout her journals, collected in A Writer’s Diary (public library) — the indispensable posthumous volume that gave us Woolf on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, the consolations of growing older, the relationship between loneliness and creativity, what makes love last, and her arresting account of a total solar eclipse.

But when she does turn to blue, it becomes more than a color, more than a mood — a subtle yet piercing hue of being, or rather the color of the lacuna between being and nonbeing. In an entry from April 9 of 1937, four springs before the blue of her lifelong depression and the River Ouse swallowed her, Woolf limns the singular blue of a particular interior space. Alluding to Wordsworth’s verse addressing “the heart that lives alone, housed in a dream,” she quotes another line and argues with the poet:

“Such happiness wherever it is known is to be pitied for tis surely blind.” Yes, but my happiness isn’t blind. That is the achievement, I was thinking between 3 and 4 this morning, of my 55 years. I lay awake so calm, so content, as if I’d stepped off the whirling world into a deep blue quiet space and there open eyed existed, beyond harm; armed against all that can happen. I have never had this feeling before in all my life; but I have had it several times since last summer: when I reached it, in my worst depression, as if I stepped out, throwing aside a cloak, lying in bed, looking at the stars, these nights at Monks House. Of course it ruffles, in the day, but there it is.

RACHEL CARSON (1941)

A quarter century before marine biologist and author Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) catalyzed the modern environmental movement with her epoch-making book Silent Spring, she performed another unprecedented feat. In a lyrical essay about the underwater world — a world then more mysterious than the moon — she invited the human reader to experience the reality of life on this planet from the nonhuman perspective of marine creatures. Nothing like it had been done before. Published in The Atlantic, the essay became Carson’s first literary breakthrough and led to her 1941 book Under the Sea-Wind (public library) — a series of lyrical narratives about the life of the shore, the open sea, and the oceanic abyss.

In a passage about the migration and mating of eels, she bridges the scientific and the poetic to plunge the human imagination into the otherworldly blue of the deep sea:

The young eels first knew life in the transition zone between the surface sea and the abyss. A thousand feet of water lay above them, straining out the rays of the sun. Only the longest and strongest of the rays filtered down to the level where the eels drifted in the sea — a cold and sterile residue of blue and ultraviolet, shorn of all its warmth of reds and yellows and greens. For a twentieth part of the day the blackness was displaced by a strange light of a vivid and unearthly blue that came stealing down from above. But only the straight, long rays of the sun when it passed the zenith had power to dispel the blackness, and the deep sea’s hour of dawn light was merged in its hour of twilight. Quickly the blue light faded away, and the eels lived again in the long night that was only less black than the abyss, where the night had no end.

NAN SHEPHERD (1940s)

Sometime in the final years of WWII, the trailblazing Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd (February 11, 1893–February 23, 1981) began composing what would become The Living Mountain (public library) — her poetic inquiry into the interconnectedness of nature and human nature.

“Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” Shepherd wrote. She found the most powerful transmutation agent of that alchemy in the singular blue of the mountain air:

The air is part of the mountain, which does not come to an end with its rock and its soil. It has its own air; and it is to the quality of its air that is due the endless diversity of its colourings. Brown for the most part in themselves, as soon as we see them clothed in air the hills become blue. Every shade of blue, from opalescent milky-white to indigo, is there. They are most opulently blue when rain is in the air. Then the gullies are violet. Gentian and delphinium hues, with fire in them, lurk in the folds. These sultry blues have more emotional effect than a dry air can produce. One is not moved by china blue. But the violet range of colours can trouble the mind like music.

VLADIMIR NABOKOV (1951)

“The confessions of a synesthete must sound tedious and pretentious to those who are protected from such leakings and drafts by more solid walls than mine are,” Vladimir Nabokov (April 22, 1899–July 2, 1977) wrote in his 1951 autobiography, Speak, Memory (public library), describing the lifelong crossing of the senses that resulted in his synesthetic alphabet.

In aiding the non-synesthete to experience this strange parallel reality of sensory perception, Nabokov constructs a color wheel of the alphabet, allotting each letter to a particular portion of the spectrum. These are his blues:

Passing on to the blue group, there is steely x, thundercloud z, and huckleberry k. Since a subtle interaction exists between sound and shape, I see q as browner than k, while s is not the light blue of c, but a curious mixture of azure and mother-of-pearl.

Although the letters of the alphabet spilled across the entire spectrum of his mind’s eye, Nabokov had an especial fondness for the color blue. He recalls how, as a youngster, his teacher would take the class to the park and enchant them by arranging the autumn maple leaves in a large circle forming “a near complete spectrum” — but, crucially, without the blue, which was “a big disappointment” to the young Nabokov. Perhaps this is why, when he turned his cross-disciplinary curiosity to lepidoptery later in life, the butterflies that most captivated his imagination and became his greatest scientific legacy were the azure-colored Latin American Polyommatini, colloquially known as the “blues.”

ANNIE DILLARD (1974)

Annie Dillard may be the closest counterpart to Thoreau we have a century and a half later — a poet laureate of nature, whose lyrical prose beckons mind, heart, and spirit to heights of contemplation we have forgotten exist. Her 1974 classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (public library) — which gave us Dillard on the two ways of looking and reclaiming our capacity for joy and wonder — is strewn with blue. Some of it delights with the pure splendor of sentiment in language:

I saw in a blue haze all the world poured flat and pale between the mountains.

Some of it transports to places of the natural world and places of the interior world we rarely let ourselves notice, much less visit, by our own accord. Dillard invites the imagination into the inky enchantment of nightfall in winter:

Yesterday I watched a curious nightfall. The cloud ceiling took on a warm tone, deepened, and departed as if drawn on a leash. I could no longer see the fat snow flying against the sky; I could see it only as it fell before dark objects. Any object at a distance — like the dead, ivy-covered walnut I see from the bay window — looked like a black-and-white frontispiece seen through the sheet of white tissue. It was like dying, this watching the world recede into deeper and deeper blues while the snow piled; silence swelled and extended, distance dissolved, and soon only concentration at the largest shadows let me make out the movement of falling snow, and that too failed. The snow on the yard was blue as ink, faintly luminous; the sky violet. The bay window betrayed me, and started giving me back the room’s lamps. It was like dying, that growing dimmer and deeper and then going out.

TONI MORRISON (1987)

“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives,” Toni Morrison wrote in her spectacular acceptance speech as she became the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize. The cornerstone for the trailblazing distinction was Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved (public library), inspired by the true story of a woman’s escape from slavery and the unfathomable cost she had to pay for her freedom.

In a scene on the banks of the river, where the fugitive heroine gives birth to her baby daughter aided by the cover of night and the white woman with the kind hands, Morrison shines a sidewise gleam on the abiding question of destiny. She contemplates what fate may hold for this new life that had so closely escaped death before entering a pitiless world; what it may hold for any life. Morrison wrests from one of this planet’s rare blue plants an exquisite existential metaphor:

Spores of bluefern growing in the hollows along the riverbank float toward the water in silver-blue lines hard to see unless you are in or near them, lying right at the river’s edge when the sunshots are low and drained. Often they are mistook for insects — but they are seeds in which the whole generation sleeps confident of a future. And for a moment it is easy to believe each one has one — will become all of what is contained in the spore: will live out its days as planned. This moment of certainty lasts no longer than that; longer, perhaps, than the spore itself.

REBECCA SOLNIT (2005)

Rebecca Solnit examines the color blue and its relationship to desire in a stunning essay that may well be the crowning achievement of this chromatic category of literature, found in A Field Guide to Getting Lost (public library) — her sublime meditation on how we find ourselves in the unknown.

In an exquisite centrifugal unfolding from the scientific into the poetic, Solnit writes:

The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water. Water is colorless, shallow water appears to be the color of whatever lies underneath it, but deep water is full of this scattered light, the purer the water the deeper the blue. The sky is blue for the same reason, but the blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving into the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue, the blue at the farthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance. This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue.

For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go. For the blue is not in the place those miles away at the horizon, but in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains. “Longing,” says the poet Robert Hass, “because desire is full of endless distances.” Blue is the color of longing for the distances you never arrive in, for the blue world.

This blue of distance and unmet longing, Solnit argues, is what makes desire so disquieting. We seek to silence it either by grasping toward its object in hungry hope of consummation or with the restless resistance of denial and suppression. We seem unable to befriend desire on its own terms and to approach it with what John Keats memorably termed “negative capability.” Solnit offers a remedy for this chronic and self-defeating anxiety:

We treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and the sensation of desire, though often it is the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between with the blue of longing. I wonder sometimes whether with a slight adjustment of perspective it could be cherished as a sensation on its own terms, since it is as inherent to the human condition as blue is to distance? If you can look across the distance without wanting to close it up, if you can own your longing in the same way that you own the beauty of that blue that can never be possessed? For something of this longing will, like the blue of distance, only be relocated, not assuaged, by acquisition and arrival, just as the mountains cease to be blue when you arrive among them and the blue instead tints the next beyond. Somewhere in this is the mystery of why tragedies are more beautiful than comedies and why we take a huge pleasure in the sadness of certain songs and stories. Something is always far away.

After relaying the personal significance of blue in a vividly remembered childhood experience, Solnit closes an altogether extraordinary essay with a return to the universal coloring of distance and longing:

The blue of distance comes with time, with the discovery of melancholy, of loss, the texture of longing, of the complexity of the terrain we traverse, and with the years of travel. If sorrow and beauty are all tied up together, then perhaps maturity brings with it not … abstraction, but an aesthetic sense that partially redeems the losses time brings and finds beauty in the faraway.

[…]

Some things we have only as long as they remain lost, some things are not lost only so long as they are distant.

JANNA LEVIN (2006)

A Mad Man Dreams of Turing Machines (public library) by astrophysicist Janna Levin remains one of the most beautiful, profound, and intellectually elegant books I have ever read — a splendid biographical novel levitating with the poetics of a rapturous imagination, yet rigorously grounded in the real lives and scientific contributions of two of the twentieth century’s most tragic geniuses: computing pioneer Alan Turing and trailblazing mathematician Kurt Gödel.

The richest, most enchanting aspect of the book is the way it illuminates just how inseparable our so-called personal lives are from our public contribution — how Turing and Gödel’s singular lonelinesses and loves shaped their character, informing and inspiring the landmark breakthroughs we celebrate as their scientific genius. For Turing, the most formative fact of his life was his deep adoration of his boyhood classmate Christopher Morcom, with whom he fell in love at the boarding school where the teenage Alan was mercilessly bullied by the other boys, nearly to death. Christopher was everything Alan was not — dashing, polished, well versed in both science and art, aglow with charisma. Alan’s love was profound and pure and unrequited in the dimensions he most longed for, but Christopher did take to him with great warmth and became his most beloved, in fact his only, friend. They spent long nights discussing science and philosophy, trading astronomical acumen, and speculating about the laws of physics. For the remainder of his life, Turing would consider Morcom his soul mate.

It is an intense blue that Levin chooses as the backdrop of their improbable love. In a stunning scene suspended between science and romance — two realms of the human experience grounded in a shared longing to make the impossible possible — she writes:

Chris had shown him the reaction between solutions of iodates and sulfites. Holding the mixture in a clear beaker near his face, he watched Alan’s response as the solution turned a bold blue, tinting Christopher’s hair and deepening the hue of his eyes. To Alan it seemed the other way around, as though Chris’s beautiful eyes had stained the beaker blue.

[…]

He often tries to re-create the moment when Chris’s spirit seeped out of the portals of his eyes and infused the room, a stunning concentration of his soul trapped in the indigo liquid in the beaker. He knows the simple form of the chemicals and the rules of their combination, but he can’t shake the force of the impression that Chris makes on him. He can’t limit the experience to the confines of ordinary matter. In the privacy of his room, he re-creates the experiment, waiting for thirty seconds before the sudden rush of color tears through the fluid. While the process enhances the vibrancy of his memory of that moment, the color never quite strikes the peak hue it reached the time Chris held the tube suspended near his eyes. Where is the spirit in human cells and chemicals and glass?

Three years later, Christopher would die of bovine tuberculosis from infected milk, breaking Alan’s heart and thrusting him into an existential tussle with the binary code of body and spirit. The inextinguishable heartache of the loss would haunt Turing for the remainder of his life, fomenting the restless soul from which his science sprang. Levin writes:

Although Alan is agitated by his own faith — a faith that has never crystallized as well as he had hoped — he does not allow his spiritual leniency to corrupt his pure view of mathematics. As a tribute to Morcom, Turing analyzed sulfur dioxide and iodic acid in explicit mathematical detail. Beneath the differential equations and the chemical compositions he found a sharp result. Lucid and true. He recorded it in black ink on white paper. His proof did not glow in blue or throb with the thrill of the moment the beaker trapped Chris’s radiance. But it was honest and right. His homage to Chris.

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS (2016)

Midway through The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks (public library) — her symphonic and mobilizing clarion call for protecting the wildernessTerry Tempest Williams includes a most unexpected burst of delight. Recounting her visit to Big Bend National Park in Texas, she enacts her intention “to simply walk and witness the Chihauhaun Desert” in a lovely way: She fills twelve small field notebooks, each a different color and each allotted to one day of her trip, with examples of the respective color she observes in the natural world about her that day.

It doesn’t seem accidental that Williams chooses to begin with the most elemental color of our planet, recording the wild and wildly sundry manifestations of blue with a naturalist’s observation of detail and a poet’s largeness of contemplation. In the small blue notebook inscribed “Day One,” she writes:

Blue is bunting, indigo and quick. Blue is jay, its chatter like jazz. Blue is grosbeak is bluebird is blackbird turned sky. The Chisos mountains at dusk are blue. Blue is ghost-like. Twilight. Deep border blue. Once is the blue moon where panthers dance. Twice is the blue belly of lizards flashing. Blue waves are heat waves, dervishes in sand. Blue is the long song of storm clouds gathering with rain.

UPDATE: Thanks to many readers who live under rocks significantly less sizable than mine, I have since discovered the wondrous Bluets.

BP

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